We were speculating here earlier about whether Wye Park’s murky antecedents included some private nods and winks with central government, and John Prescott’s gigantic Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in particular, before it entered public view.
Now we can tell you the answer. No… indeed many of the civil servants who have looked at the idea seem as taken aback as the rest of us. For a fascinating glimpse into how those who may end up sitting in final judgement on the plan reacted in the first few days after Imperial’s December bombshell, read on…
We can tell you all this thanks, once again, to the Freedom of Information act. While the three principal players in the project appear to be doing their damndest to make sure nothing else comes to light under FoI, in part by placing the crucial documents behind a private website outside its remit, ODPM have just released a set of internal discussion e-mails after a request from save-wye. For Messrs Sykes, Carter and Clokie they do not make happy reading at all.
Here is how the ODPM and the Government Office for the South East reacted when they heard the news on December 6. These are the raw e-mails, spelling mistakes included, from senior ODPM and GOSE officials.
On December 12, Tony Howells of the Kent Growth Team in GOSE, an officer who has been involved with SEERA in the past, writes to his colleagues, at ten in the morning, ‘A bit of great news just before Christmas, its enough to warm the cockles of my heart.’
Not for long it isn’t. Two hours later, a return e-mail from Colin Byrne, the then acting regional director — the big boss — swiftly damps down Mr Howell’s enthusiasm. ‘Not to deflate you before Xmas, but there are significant planning obstacles to this ie it is in the AONB and they will be extremely difficult to overcome. Jim is in the loop on these.’
And ‘Jim’ was indeed in the loop. Jim Palmer is in the Kent Planning Team of GOSE and made his misgivings plain thirty minutes before the regional director was sending the e-mail above. In a memo which seems to sum up the reservations felt in many quarters, inside and outside government, he wrote to the civil servants involved…
‘Any major development in the AONB is contrary to national policy in PPS7 (Planning Policy Statement No.7). Neither does it sit very well with the proposals in the Greater Ashford Development Framework, which is being taken forward in their LDF Core Strategy (this had its public consultation stage a couple of months ago).
The councils recognise the “challenge” of developing in the AONB and are clearly trying to get the Minister onside before anything comes to us formally. However, the Minister should avoid commenting on the planning aspects of the case at this time, because this might prejudice any future decision.
I see no problem in the Minister making encouraging noises in principal, but you might want to say something like: ” You recognise the challenge of developing in the AONB. I cannot comment on the planning aspects of the case at present because it might come to the Secretary of State formally in the future. But no doubt you will be feeding these proposals into the Local Development Framework for Ashford so that the sustainability aspects of scheme can be properly considered”.
Even Mr Howells, with the cockles of his heart aflame, had a few issues too. In another e-mail from December 12 he writes…
I am sure it will have all sorts of statutory process to go though that will bring out the issues, the only thing that might be worth saying is sustainablity and environmental assessments will be key to redevelopment I would have though.
An last of all getting the HA (Highways Authority, EA (Environment Agency) and related environmental organisations involved at the start and keeping them involved will be essential if it is to go through. Lastly maybe involving CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) to ensure the designs are good, lastly something about restoration dn preservation about good quality buildings that are already there may be a good way to finish other than that is great news.
Imperial, of course, didn’t get environmental organisations involved at the start, nor is it likely to now. It didn’t get the open encouragement it wanted from the government either, thanks to the sceptical reception of some of these civil servants.
In the end, Yvette Cooper replied, in the most non-committal of language, to these publicly-funded would-be developers of some of Kent’s most beautiful countryside, ‘You do, however, rightly recognise the challenge of taking forward development of the Wye campus within the AONB. I cannot comment on the planning aspects of the case at present, because it might come to the First Secretary of State formally in the future. But no doubt you will be feeding these proposals into the Local Development Framework for Ashford, so that the sustainability aspects of scheme can be properly considered.’
Almost exactly, in fact, as the highly perceptive Jim Palmer suggested…